Books, Maps, and Politics: A Cultural History of the Library of Congress, 1783-1861

By Carl Ostrowski | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Books, Classical Republicanism,
and Proposals for a
Congressional Library

T he Library of Congress today is an immense institution whose place on the American cultural scene is unquestioned. As of the year 2000, the two hundredth anniversary of its foundation, the Library housed some 119 million items in 460 languages on a universal array of subjects. 1 Copyright deposits and congressional appropriation sensureits continued collection development. And although ministering to the needs of Congress remains an important aspect of its mission, the Library's staff also caters to researchers from around the world as well as to ordinary American citizens. The Library plays an important leadership role in the library world, and through agencies such as its Center for the Book, which promotes the importance of reading and the study of book history, the Library reaches out from Washington to the rest of the country. As a symbol of the nation's commitment to the value of literature and the preservation of knowledge, the Library is an indispensable and seemingly irreplaceable institution. Who could object to such a magnificent institution? 2

And yet, when the idea for a congressional library—let alone a national library—was first broached, it did meet opposition. The story of the Library of Congress properly begins not with its founding but with failed attempts in the 1780s and 1790s to establish such a library. These

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